Bengals den of defense braces for Falcons offense

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Wallace Gilberry is one of the guys trying to de-frost Matty Ice Sunday in the home opener.

What more could you want Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) when the 1-0 Bengals play the 1-0 Falcons?

 It is a sun-splashed home opener pitting two of the NFL's more productive and reliable units of the past several years when the Bengals' suffocating home defense faces Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan's more than point-a-minute offense.

The Bengals.com Media Roundtable calls it a close one, but in the first unanimous resolution of the season, the Table sticks to the age-old principle that good defense always beats good offense.

Pete Prisco of CBS Sports.com has been a big fan of head coach Marvin Lewis' re-boot from 2011 and while he doesn't project them into the Super Bowl like he did before last season, he calls them the unquestioned class of the AFC North.

Former long-time NFL quarterback Rich Gannon, calling Sunday's game for CBS with Kevin Harlan, says the Bengals win by a field goal because they out balance the Falcons.

Richard Skinner, one of the Cincinnati market's more versatile performers of the last two decades, emerges for the home opener covering the Bengals for *The Cincinnati Enquirer *and gives the edge to a Cincinnati offense he believes breaks out the running game.

D. *Orlando Ledbetter of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution is a familiar face in the PBS press box and not just because he's president of the Pro Football Writers of America. A former Cincinnati Enquirer sports writer, he thinks the Bengals take some executive action against a Falcons defense still smoking from last week's shootout against the Saints.   *

Let's go around the table with visitors and local guys first.

LEDBETTER

You've got both teams' best units going against each other with the Falcons offense against the Bengals defense. If that's a stalemate, the Bengals offense can probably exploit the weaknesses on the Falcons defense. I think Andy Dalton, A.J. Green and Gio Bernard will be able to find some room to work. If they get in the red zone or get in scoring position, they're going to need touchdowns and not those five field goals they got in Baltimore last week.

Gio Bernard on the Falcons linebackers is a big matchup. A.J. Green on the double team against cornerback Marcus Trufant and one of the safeties, William Moore or Dwight Lowery, that should be open, too. Bengals wide receiver Mohamed Sanu is a tough match on the other side and they're afraid of tight end Jermaine Gresham, too.

This is a struggling defense. They gave up 333 yards in the air and a bunch of rushing yards. It was very leaky. If they don't get that interception in the end zone and that stripped fumble, the Saints easily could have put up 14 more points and it would have been 48-37. It's looking like a leaky, bend-but-don't-break operation.

They tried to beef up the run defense with the big guys, Paul Soliai and Tyson Jackson, in free agency. But they've still got two undrafted guys playing linebacker.  They were productive last week, Paul Worrilow and Joplo Bartu, had 15 and 10 tackles, but they weren't impact tackles. They weren't stopping people in the hole. Those guys will have to step up with more force and vigor than they showed last week.

The other big matchup is left tackle Gabe Carimi against Bengals defensive end Carlos Dunlap with Jake Matthews out.

THE EDGE: BENGALS, 24-17. The Bengals stout defense will hold the offense down enough and Andy Dalton will figure out how to get into the end zone more often this week.

SKINNER

One of the main factors for the Bengals is they have to get to Matt Ryan. If he stands back there and has all day to throw, he's got four good receivers. I know Roddy White has had a balky knee here this week, but he's still Roddy White. Julio Joes is back from (last year's) injury, Devin Hester came out of nowhere to some degree to do what he did last week. It can become a matchup nightmare. You've got to get some pressure and you've got to get him on the ground.

Atlanta had a real hard time stopping the run last week and gave up 5.0 yards a carry, and that's just a crazy number in the NFL. I think the Bengals do have to run the football better, more efficiently and I think they will. I think this will be a good game for rookie running back Jeromy Hill to maybe break out, a chance for him to run between the tackles, get 12, 15, 18 carries, maybe more. A lot of things in that regard will help because with wide receiver Marvin Jones out and tight end Tyler Eifert out, you're down two big weapons in the receiving game, you better run the ball better on Sunday and I think they will.

For the Bengals defense, it has to be whatever matchup you get against those receivers. Can rookie Darqueze Dennard be the fourth corner if you go to four corners? Can Dre Kirkpatrick be the fourth corner?  However they present it formationally, you're going to have a tough matchup somewhere along the way. And one of those younger guys is going to have to step up and cover them.

The flip side is Atlanta defensively, other than their young corners, there aren't a lot of stand-out guys. Yeah, there are some names. There's defensive end Osi Umenyiora. But they don't have guys who are huge playmakers in that front seven. If the Bengals have a chance to take advantage, they should take advantage in the interior.

THE EDGE: Bengals 30-24.I just don't see how Atlanta has an easy time stopping the Bengals. It's going to be hard for the Bengals to stop Atlanta, but they will do just enough to slow them down to go to 2-0.

PRISCO

I love to see a great offense vs. a great defense and I think Cincinnati has a chance to be a great defense.

When you look at what the Bengals did last week with all their different looks, the key matchup on offense vs. them is their coordinator, Hue Jackson, vs. Falcons defensive coordinator Mike Nolan. They both like to get crazy and I think (Jackson) got a little crazy last week in Baltimore, I thought, with some the things he did. Creativity is one thing, but sometimes just go play football. But I like what he did. I like some of the things he did. I love the little screen pass to running back Giovani Bernard in the slot. I like that.

From a physical standpoint, Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green against cornerback Robert Alford will be huge. And on the other side, obviously Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones and how they decide to play him will be huge.

That was a good sign with quarterback Andy Dalton last week. You should win that game easily and then all of a sudden you're behind and he makes that throw. That was a great throw. It shouldn't have been bobbled, it should have been caught. It should have been run into the end zone.  To me, that was an impressive moment for Andy Dalton. I think that shut up a lot of people.

I picked the Bengals to win the division. After watching Pittsburgh and Baltimore, I don't think there's any doubt they're the class of the division. I think they'll win 11 games.

THE EDGE: BENGALS, 27-24. Because of home. It will be close. These are two playoff teams in my mind. I like what I saw from the Bengals last week. It was 15-0 last week and it could have been a lot worse than that. They kept Baltimore in the game and almost paid for it because they didn't put it away. They played good football for three quarters and that's the team you'll see more often than not than the one you saw in the fourth quarter.

GANNON

There are a couple of matchups that get my attention. Anyone who is covering A.J. Green is going to have their hands full. That's the big story of the week.

But on the flip side, Atlanta's got Julio Jones, Roddy White, Devin Hester was brought in to be a return specialist and he had five catches for 99 yards last week. Cincinnati's corners are going to have to play really, really well. I mentioned to defensive coordinator Paul Guenther they're going to have to tackle. Yards after catch are going to be a big story in this one.  The Falcons have some real speed at the receiver position and they're going to have to rally and make sure guys do a good job of tackling.

I think (the Bengals are up to it) so. I was really impressed with what I saw from them Week One. To go on the road and beat the Ravens the way they did. They need to get some things cleaned up .Tackling, you talk about it, but we don't do enough of it, even in the preseason. These guys are only playing 10, 15 snaps in a game and then all of a sudden you come out and play 65, 70 snaps, it's a lot different in terms of your angles, your conditioning your fits.

The thing that impressed me is when I watched Cincinnati play last week, their speed on offense in terms of how just fast they play…the pre-snap shifts, the movement, the motions, how quickly Andy got the ball out of his hands,  getting Gio the ball in space a little bit with the bubble screens, some of the inside screens. I think they did a really, really nice job. They're going to be tough to stop as well.

The Falcons defense finished 31st in run defense last year giving up almost 136 yards a game on the ground and so they went and got (defensive linemen) Paul Soliai and Tyson Jackson. Across the board they're a lot bigger up front because they got their noses bloodied last year. They couldn't stop anybody against the run.

The key stat in this game is going to be rushing differential. You look at Atlanta's inability to run the football last year, they were awful. Running back Steven Jackson missed a lot games, and they didn't look very good running the football against New Orleans in Week One.  And then they're ability to stop the run, which was a real problem last year. I think that's why Atlanta addressed the offensive and defensive lines and they've gotten bigger. You look at how Cincinnati and how they're built, they're monsters, particularly their offensive line, they're monsters up front. They steamroll you. I think Cincinnati's ability to run the football, at least to try and do it early, is a big indicator. You've got to find out whether Atlanta can stop the run.

THE EDGE: BENGALS, 27-24. I like Cincinnati at home. It will be a close game. Look at Matt Ryan. He's come from behind 24 times in the fourth quarter and overtime of games and did it last week again. It comes down to a field goal. I think right now Cincinnati is the better football team. They're the more balanced team on both sides of the ball.

THE BOTTOM LINE

PBS is where passer ratings come to die, but the Bengals have to play it safe and keep the ball away from Matty Ice. Yes, the Bengals held passers to a 60 rating while going unbeaten at home last year. And, yes, as the torrid Ryan comes off his franchise-best 448 yards, he's prepping for a defense that held Super Bowl winning QBs Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady to a combined 441 passing yards here last season.

But if there's ever a day for Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson to break out the running game, this is it. The Falcons finished next-to-last in run defense last year and after adding 650 pounds through free agency last year in tackles Paul Soliai and Tyson Jackson, the Falcons gave up 4.6 yards per shot in 26 runs by the Saints running backs last week.

No one looks good running against the Ravens and the Bengals did their part at three yards per carry, but Jackson is committed to the run as they seek to break their drought of 19 straight games without a 100-yard rusher, their longest streak under Lewis. When he gets a 100-yard rusher, his record is 24-3 at home, and the three losses have been of the whacky variety. The last two were in that odd year of 2010, the throw-away game against Tampa in the last four minutes (a 21-14 lead that is still spinning down the bowl) and the Bills' improbable comeback from 17 points down.  

Putting Ryan on the sidelines and making him "Dry Ice," in the projected 72-degree weather would seem to be the way to go. Especially after the Bengals defense got  gassed in Baltimore last week with 88 snaps, although that may be a rallying cry for defensive coordinator Paul Guenther's unit that had enough left to preserve the win with back-to-back sacks to end the game.

Guenther challenged his guys this week to get off the field on three downs and leaders like cornerback Leon Hall took him up on it. Hall had to bow out for 15 snaps, which never happens, and then said this week he's in good shape but he's got to be in better shape.

And there's no question the Falcons are going to make the corners run. Last week they had four receivers catch at least 69 yards and one of them, Roddy White, rung up the Bengals for 201 yards the last time they met in 2010, fourth most ever against the Bengals.

The key here is tackling and Hall is one of the best tackling corners in the game drawing Harry Douglas, the Falcons slot receiver who had the seventh most yards after catch in the NFL last season, according to profootballfocus.com. White had only 10 catches out of the slot last year, but Douglas had 48 and while he had six drops he was also one of the tops in third-down catches.

The DBs have to be close because Ryan isn't going to fool around and hold the ball. He's going to get rid of it quickly and he better because he's working on his third left tackle this season. Sam Baker went down for the year in preseason and first-round pick Jake Matthews is out this week with an ankle injury.

Gabe Carimi gets the nod and while he's a former first-round pick for the Bears, he played mostly guard last year. In 2012, profootballfocus.com rated him 78th out of 80 tackles when it came to pass blocking.

He'll see everybody but Mike Reid over there as the Bengals throw everybody up there on the edge. But keep an eye on Carlos Dunlap, Wallace Gilberry, and Robert Geathers.

And keep an eye on that Bengals defense. At PBS last year they held foes to 23 percent on third down and while the Ravens were an uncharacteristic 8-for-17 on third down last week, the Bengals looked in mid-season form on the last third and fourth downs in Baltimore.

And Guenther is starting to look like he's not a bashful sort. One working number had him blitzing 19 of the 88 snaps. Whether he can get away with blitzing Matty Ice one out of four snaps is another question. If Ryan is going to have a big day, he'll have to do it with people in his face.

Although the Falcons offense and Bengals defense are taking the headlines, how often do you get the NFL's top two active punt returners facing off against each other? The Falcons' Devin Hester and his 13 TDs tee it up against Bengals cornerback Adam Jones and his five, although Jones has been reminding people all week that Hester has 137 more returns than he does in his career.

Jones is leading Hester this year with his 45-yarder on his one shot, 44 yards longer than Hester's one chance against the Saints. But you wonder how many chances Jones as the third corner gets with the Falcons running out all those wide receivers. If rookie cornerback Darqueze Dennard had been up and running, Jones probably would returned a few, but given the nature of this game he may not get the chance.

But if they need him, he's there.

Bengals punter Kevin Huber has been brilliant against Hester. In Chicago last year he kicked two out of bounds and held him to a yard on the other two. And in his other game against a certain Hall-of-Famer, as a rookie in 2009, Huber got off one punt and it wasn't returned.

The Bengals don't want him to make this game the one where he makes his presence felt. Talk about the Falcons offense all you want, but this one comes down to a field goal, and Hester or Jones can you get there quickly.

If the Bengals want to go to 2-0, Bernard and Hill should be the only guys running.

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